Review: The Ankh-Morpork City Watch Novels
by Tom Ingram
The Ankh-Morpork City Watch series started so that Terry Pratchett could subvert the idea of the city watch and palace guards being mindless cannon-fodder. He wrote one book, called Guards! Guards!, about the city watch. To everyone’s surprise, the book was not only entertaining but great, and it turned into a series. To date, seven books have been written, the most recent being Thud! (2005).
The driving force behind the whole series is the character of Captain (later Commander) Samuel Vimes. Rumour has it that the protagonist of Guards was supposed to be Lance-Constable (later Corporal and then Captain) Carrot, but he didn’t work as a central character. So, the story goes, Pratchett created the character of Vimes, who turned out to be the most interesting person in any Discworld book to date. Vimes is the authority figure who keeps the Watch running. This has given him a cynical outlook on life, and he is a little rough around the edges. He has a dual nature, to the point where his mind has separated into two parts. Due to his humble origins and a few other considerations, he has an intense dislike of the upper class, but he marries Lady Sybil, a noblewoman and is eventually knighted. He claims to be a speciesist (the Discworld equivalent of racism), yet he is the one who integrates the Watch and is instrumental in bringing more modern attitudes on the subject to Ankh-Morpork. He also displays remarkably tolerant opinions himself, seeing better than anybody else that people, whether they’re hairy and orange, made out of rock, less than five feet tall, or dead, are always people.
The stories work pretty well as mysteries, even if you take away the high-fantasy setting and comedy. Men at Arms, in particular, is a real page-turner. To top that off, they touch on some interesting ideas about–wait for it–the human condition. This being Terry Pratchett, of course, all this is couched in razor-sharp wit and shameless wordplay. The result is a series that makes you chuckle, stroke your chin, smile, cry, and laugh uproariously all at once. After the cut is a series of mini-reviews of the seven books, ranked from lowest to highest.
7: The Fifth Elephant
He was aware that a wise man should always respect the folkways of others, to use Carrot’s happy phrase, but Vimes often had difficulty with this idea. For one thing, there were people in the world whose folkways consisted of gutting other people like clams and this was not a procedure that commanded, in Vimes, any kind of respect at all.
Two murders and a theft are committed in the city, and the trail leads to Uberwald, where Vimes is incidentally headed on a diplomatic mission. Dwarves, vampires, and werewolves get involved, and things become political. This is the clumsiest of the seven books. There is a little bit of mystery, but it’s not as intriguing as in the other books. It’s funny at times, but never overwhelmingly so. There is action, but it’s shoehorned in where it doesn’t make sense. The characters behave strangely, and never give adequate explanations. And the Vimesist philosophy is crammed in the strangest places. This book is not significantly longer than the ones before it, but with the lack of an interesting plot, the few extra pages are really felt.
It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.
A major political figure is assassinated in a manner reminiscent of JFK. This spurs both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch on to war. Vimes has to prevent this, and at the same time catch the killer. This one isn’t quite as inspired as the rest of the books, but it’s still entertaining nonetheless. And the ending, when Carrot arrests two opposing armies for “actions likely to disturb the peace”, is probably one of the most entertaining moments in any of the novels.
5: Feet of Clay
Vetinari: Commander, I always used to consider that you had a definite anti-authoritarian streak in you.
Vetinari: It seems that you have managed to retain this even though you are authority.
Vetinari: That’s practically zen.
Several murders are committed, and golems start acting strangely. Meanwhile, a shady cabal is trying to overthrow the Patrician by poisoning him, and no one is quite sure how the poison is delivered. This book is essentially Asimov done in a swords-and-sourcery setting, with the golems standing in for robots. The plot is a gripping mystery, and the puns turn out to be important, rather than just decorative. One of the best things about this book is that Nobby and Sergeant Colon get a chance to be the heroes who save the day, and they do it without finding hidden depths of courage. Their usual cowardice and stupidity allows them to perform great feats of heroism.
Vetinari: Given, then, a contest between an invisible and very powerful quasi-demonic thing of pure vengeance on the one hand, and the commander on the other, where would you wager, say…one dollar?
Drumknott: I wouldn’t, sir. That looks like one that would go to the judges.
Thud! continues the more serious direction taken by Night Watch. The Watch has to solve a murder quickly in order to prevent species tensions from boiling over and starting a war. This culminates in a struggle against the Summoning Dark, the ancient thing of pure vengeance alluded to above. One of the entities in Vimes’ head, the Watchman, beats the Summoning Dark back. By now we can be pretty sure that Vimes is insane, since he has two different personalities in his head and one of them is a homicidal maniac. But he’s insane in a way that makes him perfect for his job.
The species tension between the dwarves and trolls that has driven much of the plot of the series to this point is finally dissolved. We find out that the battle of Koom Valley, the epic struggle in which the dwarves ambushed the trolls (or the other way around, depending on who you ask) was originally supposed to be a peace treaty signing, until a storm started, and each side thought the other had ambushed them. The leaders of the two sides end up stuck in a cave together, and spend their last moments playing a friendly match of the titular board game.
A recurring motif of this book is fatherly love. Vimes’ son was born at the end of Night Watch, and he makes a promise to himself: read to his son every day at six, no matter what. Even if he’s across town at quarter to six, he makes absolutely certain that at six o’clock sharp, he is in the nursery reading Young Sam’s favourite book, Where’s My Cow?. When he fell into an underground cave in Koom Valley just before six o’clock, and couldn’t make it out in time, he went on an angry rampage while shouting out the words to the book, and somehow Young Sam seemed to hear it across all that distance. Sergeant Detritus, too, adopts the drug-addled street troll Brick, and treats him like a son. Brick is looked down on as stupid even by troll standards (as was Detritus in the first two books), but Detritus is confident that he can set Brick straight.
Ending the conflict that was a driving force throughout the series gives this book a sort of finality. In all likelihood, it’s the end of the series. If that’s the case, it’s the best ending you could possibly hope for. Commander Vimes and his “Sammies” went out with a bang.
3: Guards! Guards!
It’s a metaphor of human bloody existence, a dragon. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also a bloody great hot flying thing.
This is the first City Watch book, in which Vimes works his way up from the gutter and turns the Watch into something relevant again. A few of the characters are almost unrecognizable, since they’ve changed so much throughout the series. Partway through the writing of the book Pterry changed the focus from Carrot to the more interesting Vimes, and there are some surgical scars from this change, but this is where the rest of the series came from. It set up the blend of dark humour, wordplay, action, and mystery that made the rest of the series so great. It’s definitely one of the best starting points for anyone looking to get into the Discworld series. The very first scene, when Brother Fingers tries to get into the Elucidated Brethren’s meeting place, is comedy gold.
2: Night Watch
Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes.
This book harkens back to the good old days, when Vimes was in command of a tiny force of watchmen, had no real power of any sort, but still managed to achieve great things. In order to do this, Pratchett had to send Vimes back in time. With his small squad of young men, Vimes prevents a revolution from causing any major loss of life, dismantles the secret police of a totalitarian regime, and stops a serial killer, and returns to his own time, all without disrupting the timeline.
Aside from that, it also reveals another facet of Lord Vetinari by showing him as a young man, making it clear that he is not one to be messed with. He assassinates Lord Winder in the middle of a crowded, well-lit room without being seen or leaving behind evidence of any kind, even wounds on the body. For the first time, though, we see a major flaw in the Patrician’s character: his patriotism leads him to take part in the Glorious Revolution, which ultimately installs a new leader just as bad as the old one.
This book, besides being one of the funniest instalments of the series, is the most thoughful entry and the most tear-inducing. It is in all respects an equal to Men at Arms, but something had to take second place.
1: Men at Arms
What’s so hard about pulling a sword out of a stone? The real work’s already been done. You ought to make yourself useful and find the man who put the sword in the stone in the first place.
The peak of the series was the second entry, a story about a destitute nobleman who tries to bring back the glory days when Ankh-Morpork was ruled by a king. He steals the newly-invented “gonne” to this end, and his plan quickly spirals out of control as the weapon starts to take over his mind. More so than its predecessor, this story sets up the status quo for the rest of the series. This is where the Watch starts to rapidly expand into a real police force. A few characters are promoted to the ranks that they hold for the rest of the series, and Vimes marries Lady Sybil.
Men at Arms has unprecedented character development, taking previously one-note characters and expanding them into full-fledged people. Instead of being dully incorruptible and a little stupid, as in the first book, Carrot proves that he’s capable of complicated planning and trickery without doing anything morally wrong. And he shows that he’s capable of putting a sword into a stone, much to the chagrin of the man standing between him and the stone at the time. We see a more human side to Lord Vetinari when we find out he runs the city the way he does because of a sense of patriotic duty. The species tension between dwarves and trolls that ends up being resolved in Thud! starts to fall apart in this book, as two new watchmen, a dwarf and a troll, gradually become friends and recruit more of their species. Near the end, Sam Vimes, through sheer psychotic willpower, fights off the influence of the gonne, a feat no one else but Carrot could accomplish.
And, best of all, it gave us this immortal passage:
If you have to look along the shaft of an arrow from the wrong end, if a man has you at his mercy, then hope like hell that man is an evil man. Because the evil like power, power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you are going to die. So they’ll talk. They’ll gloat. They’ll watch you squirm. They’ll put off the murder like another man will put off a good cigar. So hope like hell your captor is an evil man. A good man will kill you with hardly a word.